Gueorgui Pinkhassov (Magnum Print Room)


Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Russia. Moscow. (2008)

The threshold of the visible, where frail light ebbs away into darkness, is the preferred territory of the Russian photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov (b. 1952), whose work is the subject of a commercial exhibition of around 30 images currently on display at the Magnum Print Room. His pictures explore spaces and surfaces clogged with visual noise: interiors filled with cigarette smoke; grimy windows; murky water; cityscapes where the weak glow of dawn sunshine transforms human bodies into faceless silhouettes. In a 2008 photograph of a Moscow street taken through a windscreen, patches of snow rest on the glass like fallen clouds; in the road beyond, the dark figures that loiter among other cars, and the soaring, boxlike buildings that dwarf everything else in the scene, generate an atmosphere of quiet menace. Ordinary things – snow, people, cars – remain recognisable and highly concrete at the same time as their arrangement within the frame creates odd juxtapositions and distortions of scale. Pinkhassov is often attracted to abstract patterns, such as the tangle of arms, hands and torsos to be found in a 1995 photograph taken in Rajastan. But in his most absorbing images, like the Moscow street scene, the principal effect is not abstraction but defamiliarisation: the making strange of what has come to seem commonplace.


Gueorgui Pinkhassov, India. Rajasthan. Jaisalmer. (1995)


In recent decades, the prestigious Magnum agency to which Pinkhassov belongs has tended to define itself less as an outlet for traditional news photojournalism and more as a centre of excellence for collectible, aesthetically-sophisticated documentary photography – work often produced in the course of long-term personal projects which reflect members’ particular interests or distinctive visual style. In the present exhibition, compositions which exploit the weirdly beautiful effects of shadow and artificial light in hotels, shops and subways are displayed alongside photographs of the anti-government demonstrations which took place in Kiev earlier this year. Presented with minimal contextual information, these different types of images have been grouped together as evidence of the photographer’s creative vision. The emphasis here is not on the thing or event seen but on the virtuosic seeing eye.


Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Japan. Tokyo. Hotel restaurant. (1996)


Would it matter if documentary photography comes to be thought of, and valued, primarily as a mode of personal expression? Arguments to the effect that its ethical bite is likely to atrophy as a result of this development demand serious consideration. Yet in a world where many of the events encountered by photographers are stage-managed to make the interests of the powerful seem coherent and persuasive, it is useful to be reminded of how surreal and complicated the world can look. Photography like Pinkhassov’s trains us to resist easy acceptance of the (seemingly) transparent image, and to recognise that a subjective brain lurks behind every camera.


Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Ukraine. Clashes between anti-government protesters and police in the Ukrainian capital, on Maidan Square and across the city of Kiev. (2014)

Tom Balfe is a visiting lecturer at the Courtauld.

Gueorgui Pinkhassov is at the Magnum Print Room until the 31st July 2014.


Living Laboratory: Richard Pare on Le Corbusier & Konstantin Melnikov (Pitzhanger Manor)

This exhibition, showing at the gallery alongside renowned Regency architect John Soane’s pile in Ealing, features photographs of work by two 20th century architects: Konstantin Melnikov and Le Corbusier. Eloquent text panels introduce each architect and individual images. The photographer Richard Pare depicts buildings in three distinct ways in this exhibition: architecture as objects, buildings and landscapes, or rooms. People are not the subject of the photographs. There are a few individuals lurking in the backgrounds of some prints but these images are mostly forgettable.

Only one building designed by Melnikov is present. The Melnikov House, a suburban villa formed by two interlocking cylinders with hexagonal windows. Two large prints – side by side – to form a sort of interior panoramic of the house’s studio, but fail to create any sort of coherent image. Sunlight from several windows makes for a harshly lit interior –  too intense to view all at once. Another diptych, this time of the salon, is photographed diagonally from interior stairs in the left background, stacked paintings by the architect’s son, and onto a desk in the right foreground. The viewing axis of the photographs suggests a spectrum from the intensity and privacy of the desk which reduces across the room and onto the staircase: this room is connected to others and can be left freely. Diffuse light softens the lilac painted walls and reveals scars in the plasterwork where light-fittings used to be. Perhaps comfort isn’t the right word for the effect but there is certainly a lack of anxiety in this image.

Unité d'habitation, Marseilles, 1946-52 (2011)

Unité d’habitation, Marseilles, 1946-52 (2011)

A range of Le Corbusier buildings are displayed, from early projects like the Villa Le Lac, to later work such as the priory of La Tourette. Here Pare demonstrates the anxiety between landscape and building in the work of Le Corbusier. A photograph of the rooftop of the Unité d’Habitation shows the contrast between the building’s garden with the Mediterranean in the background. Photographed orthogonally, the seated enclosures of the middle-ground are reflected in a manmade pool in front of them and the coastline is reduced to mere scenery.

Ville Le Lac, Corseaux, 1924-25, (2012)

Ville Le Lac, Corseaux, 1924-25, (2012)

Another photograph, this time of Villa Le Lac, has the familiar composition of Pare’s photographs of Corb’s buildings: the landscape is photographed orthogonally with the building shown obliquely at one side of the image. But rather than portray the building an object, Pare allows us just a little portion of it: a pocket of covered space and a doorway which connects back into the open-plan villa. The lakefront wall runs along a boundary marking the threshold between site and landscape. On the left edge the wall rises up to form a garden room with a frame-less window at its centre. Underneath this opening are two chairs either side of a concrete table. Compared with the plan libre and ribbon window of the villa’s interior, this window frames a fixed subject (the landscape) where all chance is abolished. Perhaps like one of Pare’s photographs.

Matthew Wells is an MA student at the Courtauld

Living Laboratory: Richard Pare on Le Corbusier & Konstantin Melnikov is at the PM Gallery, Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, until the 11th May 2014.


History of Photography Seminar: Image and the Abyss

Toronto-based visual artist Annie MacDonell gave a compelling lecture-meets-artist’s talk, discussing her work in an open-forum manner at the Research Forum on 1 May.

She began by reading her interpretation of two pivotal postmodernist texts, Craig Owen’s ‘Photography en abyme’ and Rosalind Krauss’s ‘The Originality of the Avant-Garde,’ both of which have largely informed MacDonell’s practice recently, as she has begun to question notions of authenticity and originality in her own art making and in contemporary artistic practice in general. When these texts were written, photography became an important allegorical device for theorists to employ when trying to unravel some of the impenetrable issues of postmodern discourse in its early days. To some extent, MacDonell has translated this methodology into an artistic practice that incorporates photography, film, sculpture, and installation.

MacDonell’s exhibition ‘Originality and the Avant Garde (on art and repetition)’ at Mercer Union in Toronto includes all of these elements of her practice, with a selection of five photographs as well as a mirrored structure the size of her studio. The space within the structure functions as a screening room for a short film, which also reveals itself as a camera obscura: as the film comes to an end, the images from the gallery space appear as projections on the wall.

The mirror is crucial in relation to the texts by Owens and Krauss, as it is the surface that causes an abyss in its endless repetition. This can be understood quite literally, as light reflects on the mirror in a camera, which MacDonell physically translates into the gallery space with the mirrored structure and the camera obscura. Then, there is another layer of mirrored space, as the photographs themselves include mirrors or other reflective surfaces, creating a chain of projections that have no beginning or end. It is this aspect of the mirror that informs MacDonell’s understanding of appropriation. All of the images pictured in MacDonell’s photographs were found in an image archive in Toronto, where, over the years, various archivists have determined categories and sourced images from an indiscriminate array of periodicals, organizing a vast amount of visual information in an almost entirely arbitrary way. The idea of an original source becomes obfuscated in this mass of imagery, and even further removed through its appropriation by MacDonell.

MacDonell confessed that her work is ‘self-explanatory to a fault,’ but actually, it is not as obvious as it may seem. In the short film included in the exhibition, a young man implicates the viewer, engaging in a theoretical diatribe about the very ideas that are explored in the exhibition: originality and authenticity. His confidence in these ideas will resonate with viewers of MacDonell’s work, as its presentation is so in line with its conceptual underpinnings that it verges on becoming too obvious, too self-referential. But his confidence also reveals his naïveté, reminding the viewer that what appears most obvious may be more complex than it initially appears.

Natalia Murray on the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the Quest for the New Art

Street festival May 1926, Leningrad

At the end of January, Natalia Murray spoke about ‘The Proletarian Art Enigma’ as part of the Modern and Contemporary Research Seminar. She began with the social and historical background of the Russian Revolution of 1917—aimed at establishing a homogenous socialist state and culture to serve purely political needs—and ended with the year 1921. In her lecture, Murray sought to question whether proletarian art was a reality or a contradiction during this interlude.

The French Revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries set an important precedent for the Bolsheviks. Influenced by the writing of Gustav le Bon, renowned French social psychologist, the Bolsheviks understood the power of the image for manipulating the masses. In his work on the psychology of the crowd, Le Bon believed that sentiment, not rational nature, is key. It follows that images, not words, are more powerful in controlling and manipulating crowds. Note that le Bon has been quoted by Mussolini, Stalin, Lenin and Hitler.

Russian Futurists and Leftist artists were quick to support the Bolshevik Revolution and moved to the forefront of new proletarian art . Murray took us through images of the first expressions of this art: from the Futurists’ sculpture of a fumbling eagle located at Peterhof Station nearby the Summer Palace of the Tsar, which symbolised the collapse of autocracy, to agitational propaganda on trains and trams with slogans in German due to the influence of Karl Marx to street decorations reminiscent of parade floats from the French Revolution to items of porcelain and posters by Natan Altman and Vladimir Lebedev.

Possibly the most well-known surviving artistic work from the period is the dramatically staged “Storming of the Winter Palace” by Soviet Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein. Recall the heroic toppling of the statues and masses with torched flames clambering over the palace gates. He based his film on the 1920s public re-enactment of the supposed legendary event of the 1917 Revolution. It epitomised Bolshevik mythology and points towards social manipulation, as in fact the Red Guards entered the government buildings to take control without a shot being fired.

Did proletarian art achieve its individuality; did it create a seismic effect on socialist society? Art as propaganda certainly continued beyond 1921 and was successful for agitational purposes. However the Futurist artists were removed as they ultimately failed to engage the workers who preferred more realistic decorations in a conventional style.


History of photography seminars, organised by Julian Stallabrass and Pei-Kuei Tsai, explores the history of the modern invention up to the present day by inviting academics, photographers, and curators to give a lecture at the Research Forum on Wednesday evenings a few times per term. The first of the seminars this term was given by Dr. Sarah James, UCL. She was welcomed back to the Courtauld, where she read her PhD with Professor Stallabrass in the middle part of the 2000s.

The topic of the evening was the exhibition What is Man? (1964) at the Academie der Kunst in Berlin, curated by Karl Pawek. Seen by 25 million people, it was an important photography exhibition in the relatively early days of temporary photography exhibitions in fine art context. James gave a richly detailed presentation on the subject, situating German visual culture within the historical contexts of the Cold War.

This context was woven largely through the Americanisation of post-war German culture, and within this framework, James took a comparative approach to analysing the exhibition, using the American exhibition, Edward Steichen-curated Family of Man (1955), as a basis. James offered a view of German visual culture largely influenced by their fascination for American media, with What is Man? as a response to American photojournalism found in outlets like the Life Magazine. The success of both exhibitions among the public, and their display of humanity through photomontages helps to draw an immediate parallel between the two.

The comparison across cultures and time works because of Pawek’s documented interest in Steichen’s work. On one hand, there are many similarities between the two exhibitions, such as the usage of metaphotography, conservative humanistic perspectives, international reach, corporate sponsorship, and popular appeal. However, differences emerge upon closer examination. One of the notable was that Pawek’s exhibition was not being explicitly religious in nature, whereas Steichen’s included quotes from the bible. Steichen also left out information about the photos, as they were meant to be read as simple documentary representations, and while Pawek did not include these details within the exhibition either, he did include the information in the catalogue.

On a fundamental level, James argued, Pawek presented a consistently more heterogenious view of the world than Steichen. In Pawek’s exhibition, the arrangement of photos alternated and shifted between single portraits and photos of masses, rather than focusing wholly on thematic display as Steichen did. Pawek also chose not to exclude references to racial unrest, something largely avoided by Steichen. Some of the most effective examples were from the power of the images themselves, such as Pawek’s photos of war and its aftermath, such as the images of people who survived Hiroshima. Another was the exhibition’s display of bourgeoisie engaged in ritualistic situations. By turning the lens toward the exhibition’s likely viewers, Pawek brought more depth to the critical aspect of the exhibition.

To attributing the differences to a specific German experience, James offers an interwar German photomontage as another point of comparison, focusing on the changes in the German perspective in photography. James used Ernst Junger’s collection of press photography, The Transformed World, published in 1933. Although it reached the public in a different format, it offers an interesting point of contrast to Pawek’s work, particularly in the splicing of violence with the images of everyday, creating a “stereoscoping vision” that bringing depth to the depiction of reality. To what extent his view can be representative of German visual culture in the 1930s, especially with Junger’s complex and somewhat ambiguous relationship to National Socialism, is open for discussion, but the comparison may still be useful as Pawek and Junger does share a thematic interest. In using both Junger’s and Steichen’s works, James presented a well-constructed argument that sees Pawek’s work as reflecting an intriguing confluence of both visions, and offers us a German image of man transformed by the World War II, the country’s defeat, and the aftermath.

(Click here for images)


A Response

Research Forum Modern and Contemporary Seminar

One of the aims of this new initiative by the Research Forum is to allow students to respond to research events in diverse ways, placing new, perhaps abstract lenses on the information presented. I have chosen to respond to this discussion with a note on Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. As a true admirer of his work I couldn’t help but see two distinct, if somewhat trivial, aesthetic similarities with a photograph by Elżbieta Tejchman in the presentation (Fig. 1), and two of his images. The first related to the use of a solitary figure within a bleak, monochrome landscape, seen here in Nostalgia (Fig. 2), as a strong visual motif in Tarkovsky’s films. The second is the form of the sculpture in Fig. 1, Antoni Starczewski’s ‘spatial form‘ created for the Biennale, and the Polish poster for Solaris (1972), designed by Andrzej Bertrandt (Fig. 3).

These two aspects pick up on the tension of artistic forces in the notion of ‘Photography and Temporality’, there is first the sculpture for the Biennale itself, and then the photographer documenting the event for future observation. Yet when these photographs adopt distinct aesthetic and compositional choices, the artwork it has originally depicted takes on a new meaning within the photographic context. This was one of the themes that Sylwia Serafinowicz discussed in her seminar, analysing the photographs themselves more than the artworks they depict.

I found it quite bizarre that these two separate elements (the sculpture and Solaris, and the photograph and Nostalgia) came together in such a way as to highlight the political dimension, another key theme in Sylwia’s talk. This is because both Tarkovsky’s films and The First Biennale of Spatial Forms work against the current pressures of artists to conform to the socialist realist style of the soviet state, which was extremely difficult to oppose. Particularly for Tarkovsky in Russia, who found it increasingly difficult to make films in his home country, his last two (Nostalgia and The Sacrifice) having to be filmed elsewhere.

Sylwia suggested that in Tejchman’s photographs, the domination of the landscape and deserted streets speak of a void caused by the destruction of the old town of Elblag, under Nazi and then Soviet rule. Considering this now in terms of my Tarkovsky-esque reading, perhaps if we take the photograph out of the context of the Biennale, this is a structure that would not be so out of place as a strange piece of abandoned industrial machinery somewhere in ‘The Zone’, the surreal wasteland setting of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).

I decided to make this first blog post a ‘response’ on a very basic level, and as such these comments barely scratch the surface of the depth of Sylwia’s discussion into the complex elements of both the Biennale and the accompanying photographs. Although my observations rely solely on what was essentially a gut reaction to an aesthetic and compositional mood shared by these images, this can be one way to play around with ideas, which can sometimes extend broader angles for research.

Fig. 1: Elżbieta Tejchman, Untitled (Antoni Starczewski's 'spatial form'), Gelatin silver print, 1965

Fig. 1: Elżbieta Tejchman, Untitled (Antoni Starczewski’s ‘spatial form’), Gelatin silver print, 1965

Fig. 2: Andrei Tarkovsky, Still from Stalker, 1979

Fig. 2: Andrei Tarkovsky, Still from Stalker, 1979

Fig. 3: Andrzej Bertrandt, Polish promotional poster for Solaris, 1972

Fig. 3: Andrzej Bertrandt, Polish promotional poster for Solaris, 1972